read part one here; read part two here.
In the weeks since the book section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was closed down, many good articles have been written to analyze the state of literary criticism in the US (notably here), and after a brief survey of the litblogs, the furor seems to have died down. And after all that hemming and hawing, the general consensus seems to be an industry-wide shrug. The book reviewers have gone back to work, if nervously.
As for my own contributions on this blog (here and here), I’ve received some thought-provoking responses to these posts, both in the comments box and privately, and I have not been surprised to find many reiterated the consoling mantra of our time: "at least people are reading." And I have to say, with all due respect for those who have uttered it here or elsewhere,
No, this is not good enough.
Nardac had the goodness to recommend an excellent article here and her own response here. Calling it illiteracy, as Silverblatt does, is perhaps alarmist, but certainly one underlying problem seems to be that people don’t know how to read, really read—reading is hard, they complain. It’s boring.
In my opinion, it isn’t sufficient for people to only read easy books that reinforce their worldview, because only reading someone like Sophie Kinsella or Meg Cabot does nothing to elevate the general discourse. If everyone is just reading people who talk exactly like they do, people who have exactly the same ideas as they do, the culture will never move forward. They will remain mired in mediocrity. Don’t get me wrong; Kinsella and Cabot are lively and entertaining writers, but I’m sure they would be the first to agree that their readers should only expect momentary diversion.
But more generally, it’s a numbers game, argues Lindsay Waters, executive editor of humanities at Harvard University Press. “There is a causal connection between the corporatist demand for increased productivity,” Waters writes here, “and the draining from all publications of any significance other than as a number. […]When books cease being complex media and become objects to quantify, then it follows that all the media that the humanities study lose value.”
This reminds me of the fundamental argument of The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Horkheimer and Adorno write, “The countless agencies of mass production and its culture impress standardized behavior on the individual as the only natural, decent, and rational one. […] Everything which is different, from the idea to criminality, is exposed to the force of the collective, which keeps watch from the classroom to the trade union” (22). Reading unchallenging books keeps people on the same track, conforming and trying to keep up with what everyone else is doing. In a worst case scenario, such as the one Horkheimer and Adorno had just survived (Dialectic was first published in 1944), this complacency enables fascism and totalitarianism. But in our present, less dramatic context, it results in widespread and willful ignorance, which, while less overtly dangerous, is no less insidious. Adorno was notoriously opposed to mass forms of entertainment, like jazz, and cinema, and he was certainly wrong on those counts. And I am certainly glad that people do buy books, and read them, no matter how insipid, because they are the core of he publishing industry, that enables more challenging work to be published.
The problem is that, from early on, as Silverblatt points out, we are not encouraged to do better, to do more. We simply don’t have any literary ideal on which to model ourselves. Susan Sontag writes that when she was growing up in suburban Arizona and southern California, she turned to reading to escape from “the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory philistinism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck” (At the Same Time, p. xvi).
This assessment has the ring of hindsight to it; it’s unlikely that she could have formulated such a critique from within the provincial setting. Sontag needed to escape it, to get to other thinking people, to become Sontag. And isn’t that ironic? To think that her family, my family, came to America, Jews straight from the shtetl, to build a better life for themselves, and they did it: we, their descendants grew up in such comfort with such essential quality of life that it seems we ought to be the culmination of their hopes for us. And yet. Something was left out, in the struggle for survival, and the fight to give their children and grandchildren a better life, something got lost.
The phrase “charmed existence” was coined to describe the childhood of the average suburbanite, i.e., me; all my basic needs were met and most non-basic needs as well. So it was all the more difficult to put my finger on what was wrong, all those years. I looked around my middle-class Long Island town and I thought I was just odd. I didn’t realize I belonged to an entire tribe of people, people who read furiously and deeply, passionate about ideas and their expression. And, like Sontag, I can look back now, and see that it is because there were no models. Despite the fact that my parents are both highly literate, intelligent people who took me to the ballet, the theatre, to concerts and museums, the zone outside my parents’ jurisdiction was deadening to original thought. In my high school, as I’m sure is true in every other mediocre high school across the country, you were commended for playing by the rules, reading what you were told to; anyone thinking (or reading) outside the box was left outside the box. We read a little Shakespeare, and that was interesting, and otherwise—Holden Caulfield, The Scarlet Letter, Arthur Miller, Ibsen. Good stuff but it was like receiving echoes from outer space: I had no idea what it was all connected to or where it was coming from. I had never heard of Woolf except through the Edward Albee play, much less Beauvoir, Proust, Pynchon, Nabokov, all the greats of the 20th century. Forget about Adorno. Benjamin who? Hannah who? I didn’t find out until I went to Barnard: and that was when I first began to exist.
Nadine Gordimer describes a similar coming of age, in a 1983 interview with The Paris Review:
In the town where I lived, there was no mental food of this
kind at all. I’m often amazed to think how they live, those peo-
ple, and what an oppressed life it must be, because human beings
mustlive in the world of ideas. This dimension in the human psy-
che is very important. It was there, but they didn’t know how
to express it. Conversation consisted of trivialities. For women,
household matters, problems with children. The men would talk
about golf or business or horse racing or whatever their practical
interests were. Nobody ever talked about, or even around, the
big things: life and death. The whole existential aspect of life was
never discussed. I, of course, approached it through books.
Thought about it on my own. It was as secret as it would have
been to discuss my parents’ sex life. It was something so private,
because I felt that there was nobody with whom I could talk
about these things, just nobody. But then, of course, when I was
moving around at university, my life changed.
I was lucky enough to have the courage to stick it out, to deal with being different, and to make it to Barnard. To this day, I chafe when people tell me to take it easy, to take things less seriously. Elias Canetti once said, “Imagine telling Shakespeare to relax.” Just because we’re not Shakespeare, or Sontag or Canetti, doesn’t mean we should relax, tune out, follow the crowd. We should take things more seriously than we do. We should take ideas more seriously. We should dare to listen before formulating our opinions. We should take time to consider our thoughts on a given subject, instead of running with whatever thought is at the top of our minds. We should value less the attempt for its own sake, and start valuing excellence. We should drop the self-deprecating attitude and try taking ourselves seriously again. If we come up short of our own or other peoples’ expectations, so be it.
But that would mean we would no longer be living out our lives through a protective veil.
Nardac has more faith in humanity than I do, and so I’ll end this with her idea: “A human being’s best qualities, the things which I believe are the fundamental principles to all intellectual life, are curiosity and imagination. They both require active cultivation and effort but its rewards are a reprieve from the atrophying effects of apathy and smug ignorance.”
But they need permission to exercise their curiosity, which will otherwise flag and grow dull. And they need permission not from some Parisian blogger, but from the media, from their schools, from their family and friends.